Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Phillippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Most Reverend Joseph J. Tyson Bishop of Yakima
Peace be with you! What does mercy mean? One of Pope Francis’s favorite writers on the topic of mercy is the German Walter Cardinal Kaspar who, in his book, “Mercy: the Essence of the Gospel” notes the various ways his native German expresses the concept of mercy with three particular words: mitlied, mitgefühl, and barmherzigkeit.
The word “mitleid” comes from the root verb “leiden” meaning “to suffer,” and it refers to a kind of mercy that accompanies and walks with those who suffer. The word “mitgefühl” has its root in the verb “to feel” and it points to a mercy that has compassion and sympathy for the plight of others. The third German word is perhaps the most beautiful and the most liturgical for “barmherzigkeit” comes from two roots words: “barm” meaning “chest” or “breast” and “herz” meaning heart. In German when we pray the words “Lord have mercy” we actually say “Herr, erbarme dich uns.” It’s as though we are begging God to draw us so close to his chest that we feel the beat of his heart.
Thus when we open the Mercy Doors for this Jubilee Year we open the pathway to the human face of God: Jesus Christ. Through the Mercy Doors we’re invited to draw so close that we can feel God’s very heartbeat in a way parallel to Mary during her Advent pregnancy.
Is this not a cause for rejoicing? By happy coincidence the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy begins on the Third Sunday of Advent – traditionally referred to by it’s Latin name: “Gaudete Sunday” coming from the Latin verb “to rejoice.”
If we rejoice in a God that is so close to us we can feel his heartbeat then – echoing the question posed by the followers of John the Baptist, “What are we to do?” Without missing a beat, John the Baptist quickly responds:
“Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none,” St. John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel from St. Luke. “And whoever has food should do likewise….” To the tax collectors, St. John the Baptist commands: “Stop collecting more than is prescribed.” When soldier ask him what they should he says, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
“John appears in the wilderness as a man dedicated to God,” notes our retired Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. “The important things are first his call to repentance, which continues what all the prophets have said and second, his witness of Christ which again makes prophecy concrete in the image of the lamb of which is the Lamb of God.” (Benedictus 373)
So perhaps the question for us is this: If, despite our sin, God’s love draws us so close we feel his heart beat then how are we drawing others close to us so they can experience of heart beat of God?
It’s no accident that feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead are referred to by our Church teaching as “corporal works of mercy.” For mercy to be real it always involved a bringing together of our hearts and our hands.
The same can be said of admonishing sinners, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries and praying for both the living and the dead. These “spiritual works of mercy” run parallel to the “corporal works of mercy” for these bring together our heads and our hearts.
Recently (November 21st 2015) our Holy Father, Pope Francis, addressed educators on this very topic. Citing St. John Bosco who faced his own challenged educated youth in the 19th century Italy, Pope Francis noted that the practice of mercy involved the learning the three languages: “…the language of the head, the language of the heart, and the language of the hands. Pope Francis went on to note: “These three languages must be in harmony so that the student thinks about what he feels, and does, feels what he thinks and makes, and does that which he thinks and feels.”
Can we do the same? Allow me to close with a personal note. As many of you know, I was baptized here at this Cathedral. One of the more powerful stories I recall comes from my grandmother. Leaving the family homestead in Seltz North Dakota, she and my grandfather worked in remote logging camps with some of my older cousins in Central Oregon. Hearing from others about jobs in Yakima they decided to move here.
Stepping through the doors of this Cathedral for the first time, she recalled hearing the soft lilts of her native Schwäbish-German dialect she’d missed so much being in rural Oregon. It made her feel at home.
Friends, this is why we gather this day. We celebrate this start on Gaudete Sunday rejoicing in the knowledge that when God’s love meets human sin the fruit is always mercy. We open the Doors of Mercy so all who come on pilgrimage from across the 41 parishes and missions of the Diocese of Yakima know that this Cathedral is their home. We open the Jubilee Year of Mercy praying for the three languages of head, hand and heart in a region often segregated by Spanish and English. So let us resolve to learn this new language – the language of mercy. Peace be with you.